The Russians are Coming -- to California!
The year is 1809. In England, the portly figure of the Prince of Wales cuts a wide swath through the drawing rooms of the titled and wealthy while his father George III struggles with the illness (porphyria, likely) that has left him with intermittent lucidity and will eventually claim his life.
Napoleon continues to expand to the east, cutting a rather wide swath himself through Europe and claiming everything his Grande Armée trods upon for his empire. And in Russia, Tsar Alexander too, feels the tug of the east -- to a wild and rugged continent where the waves of the Pacific Ocean lash the ragged rocks splashing the sunning seals -- not too many miles from a place where just forty years later, gold would be discovered in "them thar hills."
The Russians came -- to California! To a stretch that is known now as the state's "lost coast," for its remoteness and lack of development even in this age where nothing beats an ocean view.
They were looking to trade in furs. In 1809 the Russian-American company's principal Alexander Baranov sent his manager Ivan Kushkov to California to scout out the perfect location for a trading base. In January of 1809 Kushkov's ship, the Kodiak, arrived in Bodega Bay carrying 40 Russians and 150 Alaskans. Their initial sojourn lasted until that August, but Kushkov subsequently returned to California and established a trading base or outpost at Metini, protected by a fort that would remain in operation until 1841. The stockade was impressively fortified, in order to give the enemy Spanish, entrenched in Southern California, second thoughts about invading the Russian outpost.
Kushkov returned in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans; and on August 13 of that year the colony was named Fort Ross (Ross being a corruption of Rossiia, or Russia). They constructed structures from local redwoods. Their palisade was defended by two towers, each fortfied with cannons.
And in the mid 1820s they buit a chapel.
The population of Fort Ross was a melange of races. Children born of Russians and Europeans who mated with Alaskans or Indians were known as Creoles.
Enclosed within the protected palisade were storehouses and outbuildings for curing animal hides, and for spinning and weaving yarns, in addition to a kitchen, an apothecary, and facilities for studying and evaluating the local botany, geology, biology, and meteorology.
When my husband and I visited Fort Ross earlier this month, I took photos of all of these rooms. Particularly striking to me was the (barely furnished at present) governor's house that had been occupied by the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev and his family, complete with spinet. Rotchev was a cultured polyglot whose home boasted a library as well. That house is now a National Historic Landmark.
Although the fort was predominantly populated by men, there were a few women who dwelled there. After all, one assumes, someone had to do the laundry!
The original purpose of the siting of the fort was to establish a brisk trade in the pelts of sea mammals, but the Russians branched out into other areas in order to be self-sustaining: agriculture, tanning, shipbuilding, and brickmaking--although the fort's structures are constructed of timber.
Overhunting severely depleted the marine mammal population so that by 1820, scant years after Fort Ross had been established, there was little left to hunt and the Russian-American company instituted a moratorium on hunting the native seals and otters. Although they had initially come to destroy, they ended up establishing the first known marine mammal conservation laws in the Pacific. Their contributions to the 19th century's scientific knowledge of California are measurable.
In December 1851 the Russian American company sold the fort to a familiar name ... John Sutter (remember Sutter's Mill of goldlust fame). Fort Ross's livestock were transferred to Sutter's own fort near Sacramento. The fort changed hands several more times during the 19th century until the California Historical Landmarks Committee purchased the Ross stockade in 1903.
Although my mother is from Beverly Hills (which makes my blood 50% Californian by my own arcane calculations), I admit that I never knew the Russians had staked a claim there -- and right in our own writing period!
Did you California hoydens know that a Russian fort had been established just a few hundred miles from where you live?
And for you four, as well as the other hoydens and our treasured blog visitors -- during your book research, have you ever come across a slice of history that took you by surprise? What was it?